For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? (Romans 10:13-14 NLT)
In today’s world, if someone wants to know about Jesus, they could just talk to a Christian. And in the Old Testament times, God had specifically chosen Israel to be his representatives. What about groups of people who never had historical interactions with Israel or the Church? Does God have a plan for them?
Within Protestant Christianity, there are many theories about how this works.The most restrictive view is exclusivism - where the only people who can be saved are those who have actually heard the gospel and accepted it. A scripture that supports this position is Romans 10:14 - “ But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” (NLT)
There is also inclusivism, which says that some people will be able to be saved even though they don’t know the gospel. Inclusivists say that it is only Jesus who has the ability to save people - since there is still “no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) - but that Jesus can save someone, speaking to them in their conscience without their knowing that it’s him. Some take Romans 2:14-15 as proof of this - when Paul says that even some Gentiles demonstrate that God’s law is written on their hearts, even though they have never heard it.
There are more open forms of inclusivism too, which might be considered “relativistic” - every religious or spiritual path is a possible way to get to God and salvation.
A third position, and the least restrictive of all, is universalism. Universalism is even more inclusive than inclusivism, since it says that eventually everyone will be saved, no matter who they are (Colossians 1:15-20?). Many Christians find this principle to be worrisome, since in theory it could eliminate the need to evangelize and share the gospel. It paints a hopeful picture, but perhaps also a bit unrealistic.
It goes well beyond the question of historical or geographical separation, however. What happens when people have not been given a good, legitimate representation of who God is? What if they have heard about Jesus and the Christian faith, but in circumstances that completely denigrate those names?
In his book "Love Wins," Rob Bell raises this question with a series of examples:
"... you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived. That would be tragic. [...] But it raises another important question: Which Jesus? [...]
When one woman in our church invited her friend to come to one of our services, he asked her if it was a Christian church. She said yes, it was. He then told her about Christians in his village in eastern Europe who rounded up the Muslims in town and herded them into a builing, where they opened fire on them with their machine guns and killed them all. He explained to her that he was a Muslim and had no interest in going to her Christian church.
Or think about the many who know about Christians only from what they've seen on television and so assume that Jesus is antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people that they're going to burn forever?
Those Jesuses?" (Rob Bell, Love Wins, pp. 7-8)
Some people learn about God in traumatic circumstances. Some children learn about God from parents or pastors who have abused them. Some entire nations are introduced to Christianity by means of violent conquest. How can someone have a clear understanding of who God is - and accept what Jesus did on the cross - when the way he was misrepresented through harm, trauma and pain?
If we believe that God is all-knowing and totally benevolent, it shouldn't be a stretch to believe that God takes circumstances into account when pronouncing final judgment on a human life. And if God has a plan for the whole world, wouldn't we think that God has taken the whole world into account?
Some Seventh-day Adventists have an idea that is a bit unique among conservative Protestant Christians. It is the idea that people are going to be judged in proportion to how much "light" they had received in their lifetime. Ellen G. White, one of the church co-founders, put it this way:
"Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.” (Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 638)
Here, Ellen White is drawing from ideas present in the first two chapters of Romans. This idea, of people only being held accountable only for what they had been given the opportunity to know, is a type of Inclusivism. There is still the possibility that people might not reach salvation due to their choices, sins, and misdeeds, but the opportunity is open to more than just ancient Israelites and Christians.
This thought, however, is not accepted by all Adventists. But neither is it unique to Adventism.
C.S. Lewis seems to have hinted at a kind of inclusivism in his own writings. In Mere Christianity, while discussing what God did after the fall of humanity, he says:
And what did God do? First of all He left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it. None of them ever quite succeeded. Secondly, He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men. Thirdly, He selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was -- that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process.
His line about "good dreams," suggests the possibility that other mythologies and religious traditions may have hints and partial truths that point, however imperfectly, to the reality of one true God.
This is fleshed out quite a bit more in The Last Battle, the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Here, the character Emeth, who has spent his life serving a deity named Tash, encounters Aslan, the powerful Lion who serves as Lewis' stand-in for Jesus:
“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. [...] But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.
Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.
Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)
While this concept is never full spelled out in the Bible (except for, debatably, in Romans 2), there are some hints at it. In 1 Kings 17, for example, the Widow of Zarephath is a non-Israelite who has received communication and instructions from Israel's God even though she is not part of the covenant community. And, interestingly, she receives this interaction from God before being visited by one of his prophets. In 1 Kings 10:1-13 we also see the Queen of Sheba, coming from Ethiopia to visit Solomon in Jerusalem. From the small handful of things she says, she demonstrates an interesting amount of familiarity with Israel's God.
In the New Testament, we have often referred to Paul's interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17, and his claim that there is more to the "Unknown God" they worship. But beyond that, we also have the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12, where the newborn Messiah is visited by "Magi from the east" - wise men who were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion and who had apparently deduced something true about Israel's God by looking at the stars.
Is your future in someone else's hands? [...] Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands? (Rob Bell, Love Wins, p. 9)
At this point, many people are likely to object. If there are other ways to be saved, other paths that lead to heaven, then does it really matter which path you choose in this life? Doesn't this eliminate our motivation to spread the gospel? Doesn't that contradict the truth that everyone must hear the gospel preached to them at some point? (Matthew 24:14) We have definitely tried to drive that responsibility home in our series on Christian Service and Mission - we absolutely must spread the message as much as we possibly can.
This is part of the tension of answering this question. The worry that some people might be "lost" has been a powerful motivating factor for many passionate evangelists and Christian missionaries. And yet, there is also the problem that many generations of people have already passed away without having any access to the gospel message. Rob Bell, again, acknowledges some important points:
Many would respond to the question, "Which Jesus?" by saying that we have to trust that God will bring those who authentically represent the real Jesus into people's lives to show them the transforming truths of Jesus' life and message. A passage from Romans 10 is often quoted to explain this trust: "How can they hear without someone preaching to them?" And I wholeheartedly agree, but that raises another question. If our salvation, our future destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us - what happens if they don't do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else's hands? Which raises another question: Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands? (Rob Bell, Love Wins, p. 9)
A final important point. Many Christians speak as if the goal of the gospel message is to help get people to heaven - to escape from this world and be fortunate enough to end up in "the good place." But oddly enough, Jesus does not really speak about the gospel being about "going to heaven when you die." Rather, Jesus always describes the gospel in terms of the Kingdom of God coming to earth. Jesus wants his followers to bring about a new community and way of life by following his teachings - ushering in the Kingdom of God. Humanity was placed on earth to serve as God's representatives (or his Image) and to rule over the planet, bringing order and wisdom to the Creation that God entrusted us with.
This is part of why Jesus taught us to pray for God's Kingdom to come, and for his will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). The gospel is about much, much more than just the salvation of individual people - but it is about the restoration of humanity to a role of wisdom and rulership over the whole world (Ephesians 2:8-10). Even if it is possible for someone to simply "get in" to God's paradise without having ever heard the gospel, it is not possible for such a person to contribute to or participate in the mission of shaping and establishing God's kingdom on earth.
This is a difficult topic. We should respect those who are seeking the answer, but come to a different conclusion than us.God is free to save people even if we do not fully understand how he does it. Jesus died for all people, and so he is able to save all people and forgives sins. But since we cannot predict or know who God will save in ways beyond our understanding, it remains our duty to do what Jesus said, and spread the message of his Kingdom to the world. To everyone.
- Read Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:1-11. What are the different ways that Jesus describes the mission of his disciples? What are they required to do? Where are they supposed to go?
- Read Romans 2:14-15. What do these verses seem to be saying? What implications do you think they have for salvation?
- Read 2:14-15 in light of the rest of Romans 2. Does the context change how you interpret verses 14 and 15? How does that affect your overall perspective on it?
- Is Paul talking about pagans who have never had contact with Israel, or is Paul talking about Gentile Christians who have received the Holy Spirit and are living up to the standards of the Old Testament law even though they did not have a Jewish upbringing?
- Read Romans 10. What does this chapter say about salvation? How important is outreach and mission, according to this chatper?
- Who is it that Paul wants to reach out to in Romans 10?
- Should we take 10:18 literally? Had the gospel gone into the whole world at that point? Compare with Romans 15:23-29.
- There are numerous examples in the Bible of non-Israelites who seem to know something about the God of Israel. Read Job 1:1, Genesis 14:17-21, Exodus 2:15-3:1, Exodus 18:1-12, 1 Kings 10:1-13, 1 Kings 17. In these passages, identify the names of characters who are non-Israelites who seem to have some knowledge of God.
- Look again at the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. How did God arrange for Elijah to have food and water? Who did he speak to? Does that make this person a prophet, or is something else going on here? What does it say about God's ability to have a relationship with people apart from the influence of Israel or the church preaching?
- What do you make of Jethro/Reuel and Melchizedek - who seem to be God's priests, but not from Israel's lineage? How does that happen?
- Read the famous story of wise men visiting Jesus in Bethlehem after his birth in Matthew 2:1-12. The lands east of Judea and Syria at the time were largely ruled by the Parthian empire. The primary religion in that empire was Zoroastrianism, and this religion did have a priestly caste of people called "Magi." Since Matthew finds it worth mentioning them, what does it say about the ability of people in other religions and cultures beyond Israel (or the church) to know something about God?
- Read Colossians 1:15-23. Given the whole passage, is it possible to interpret 1:19-20 as implying universalism? Why or why not?
- Carefully read Matthew 18:1-14 and take note of the theme of "little ones." Look also at the concept of people in positions of authority and responsibility in Ezekiel 33:1-9.
- How do you think God feels about people who have heard of him in a way that misrepresents who he is? How do you think God thinks about those who have heard a distorted or harmful version of the gospel?
- What do you think of C.S. Lewis' "good dreams" theory? Does that make sense to you, or do you think it causes more problems than it solves?
- Look at the quotes from Rob Bell, C.S. Lewis, Ellen White, and the Bible that we have used across this study and compare them with each other. What overall picture emerges for you? What possible answers or further questions do you find here?